Commander Tren Sims watched his tactical screen as it tracked the Mogrum fleet. There were twelve of them: three transports and five escorting fighters. On the screen they were just a group of geometrically arrayed blips. In reality, the transports would be nearly five kilometers long, capable of carrying an estimated 100,000 troops and all their equipment. The fighters would be twice the size of any Ercom Stalker, heavily armored and armed with pulse cannons. Although no Ercom Stalker had ever actually engaged a Mogrum, it was estimated that, without cloaking technology, the little fighters wouldn’t last long.
The bulk of Jupiter hid him and his strike force from the enemy's sensors, but he’d learned not to take anything for granted. He ran the relative positioning through the ship’s computers again and made a miniscule change in his attitude.
He caught his own reflection in the screen’s templite cover: greying temples framed a face lined with the scars, physical and emotional, of 253 previous military missions. The suit communications boom nearly covered the pencil-thin streak of beard that ran from his lower lip to his chin. He was proud of that one affectation, which only aces with over 75 confirmed kills were allowed.
A flicker of reflected planetlight caught his attention. He tensed as he realized one of the strike force was out of position. The glitter of its canopy struck him again. Anger began to well up in him until he realized it was deliberate.
Tren clicked his comm unit over to tight beam and pointed the antenna at the other ship.
"This had better be important," he growled into the mike. The computer immediately translated it into a nanosecond burst and passed the message along.
"They've dropped a nav beacon near Io and started mining," came the reply. It was obviously a relay, as the voice was not that of the strike force pilot. "Imperative gate be secured soonest. Proceed to rendezvous and regroup."
Tren pounded the control panel in frustration. Once again, the Mogrum had anticipated their plans and changed their movements. Instead of establishing a base at Europa as Ercom intelligence had surmised, they had bypassed the waiting strike force and built a foothold on the far side of the gas giant. The use of the diversionary convoy had kept the strike force occupied until the placement of mines could secure their nav beacon. It would take days to eliminate that beacon, days the human forces could ill afford. The Mogrum ships continued to penetrate the Sol system with alacrity. Their movements made it apparent their intelligence gathering was far superior, their ships more durable and efficient. Time and time again, the human forces had been bypassed, traps carefully laid avoided, ingenious plans foiled at the last instant. There were rumors the Mogrum were telepathic or that a radical human faction was at the highest levels passing critical information to them. One irrefutable fact remained: if the Mogrum could not be stopped at the Martian outposts in the asteroid belt, there was practically no way to prevent their arrival at Earth.
Tren warmed up his gravity drive and thought about his family. Wife, three children, and a pet iguana for the youngest, lived outside the Denver complex. For vacation they had planned on going to the beach at St. Louis. Since the lower Mississippi River Valley had flooded in the quakes of ' 57, the Gulf had continued its advance toward Canada, fed by the waters of melting ice caps. The flooded ruins of major cities made marvelous nurseries for all forms of sea life, but the beaches at St. Louis were still clean and safe from sharks. Shark attacks had grown in frequency so much Tren and his wife argued for nearly two weeks over going to St. Louis or Yellowstone. The kids had begged for the beach and Tren had relented.
Now all that seemed to mean so little. In a few weeks, perhaps a few days, the Mogrum would reach Earth.
Tren shook himself mentally and went back to concentrating on his ship's navigation. The rest of the strike force fell in behind him as he lined up for the jump toward Ceres.
Tren tucked his flight suit into the cubicle labeled "Sims" and slammed the lid shut.
"No sense taking it out on the equipment," a voice said from behind him. Tren turned to look at his wingman, Mal Soran. Soran was over ten years his junior, one of the few graduates of Ercom’s Flight Academy still attached to the unit. The others had received orders for reassignment at the same time as the first sighting of the Mogrum ships. Soran slipped his own flight suit into his cubicle and grinned at Tren as the lid clicked shut.
"What are you grinning at, Soran?" Tren demanded in mock anger. He liked the youngster’s ability to find the positive in any negative situation. It tended to reduce the unit’s stress level, but often did also tend to irritate him.
Soran held up his hands defensively, making a frightened face. "Don't beat me, Commander Sims, sir!"
"You ain't worth a bullet," Tren mumbled, turning his back to Soran.
"Come on, I'll buy you a drink," Soran said, leading the way out of the chamber. "That ought to sweeten your disposition."
They arrived at the recreation area a few minutes later and elbowed their way to the bar. The room was hazed by tobacco and marijuana smoke, the sickly-sweet odor filling Tren's sinuses and giving him a slight contact high. He made a mental note to pop an anti-THC tab when he got back to barracks. He hated flying at anything less than top physical form. A few men were gathered around a virtual arcade machine on the far end of the room, shouting encouragement to the players and laying side bets on who would die first. Two other men were arm wrestling at the end of the bar, broken bottles standing on either side of their clasped hands. The loser would need stitches.
"Here." Soran handed him a glass brimming with a dark green liquid. Tren took it and eyed it quizzically. "It's Irish," Soran offered by way of explanation. Tren sipped at it experimentally, then more confidently as he recognized the bite of a single malt whiskey.
"How come it's green?" he asked.
Soran shrugged. "It's Irish," he said again and took a hit of his own.
Tren nodded sagely, turning to look at the crowd.
The club was populated mostly by pilots and navigators, the mechanics, officers, and ground crews having their own separate facilities. In the manner of all organizations, classes had developed, with rules of conduct, ethics, and admission. Tren was one of the few officers who frequented the pilots' bar, accepted because he actually flew alongside his men in combat. He could pick out some of his pilots in the crowd, made note of their indulgences. Those who enjoyed themselves too much would find themselves grounded for a few days. None of his men thought this unfair. They were all veterans of the colony wars and knew the value of a clear head.
Tren was looking at youngish man with dark hair and swarthy complexion. The man was obviously uncomfortable about something.
"Who wants to know?" Tren asked him.
"My name is John Galleaux, Airman First Class, sir. May I speak to you in private?"
Galleaux glanced around fervently. Grudgingly, he said, "It's about the Mogrum, sir. "
"Report to your own commander, airman," Tren told him and went back to his drink.
"No, please, sir," Joe insisted, visibly upset. "Just five minutes is all I need. "
Tren slowly put his glass on the bar. He was not used to being denied. "I gave you an order, mister."
Galleaux swallowed and nodded, but did not move off. "You can put me on report, sir, if what I have to say doesn't bother you."
Tren was caught in spite of itself. For an airman to deliberately invite report was ridiculous. The kid didn't look drunk or high. He glanced at Soran, who raised one eyebrow as if to encourage him to go ahead.
Tren recovered his drink and walked to a table where an airman was passed out over his beer. He kicked the unconscious man off the chair and swept the empty mugs off with a single motion. There was an instant flurry of activity as maintenance 'bots cleaned up the debris while Tren, Soran, and Galleaux claimed the table.
"All right, airman, report," Tren snapped when they were settled.
Galleaux hesitated, looking from Soran to Tren.
"Lieutenant Soran is my right arm, Galleaux. If you can't talk to him, this is over."
Galleaux grimaced, took a breath, and sat back in his chair. After a moment, he leaned forward. "All the guys say you're a straight arrow, sir. Of all the officers in Ercom, you're the only one the pilots trust."
Tren took this without comment. He appreciated the trust his men put in him, but if Galleaux though he was going to use this as a way to put something over on them, the airman was in for an unpleasant surprise.
"I was on patrol between the Belt and Mars three days ago," Galleaux went on. "It was supposed to be a routine sweep for gun runners and smugglers, you know, what with the dispute between the mining camps on Phobos and Ceres."
Tren had heard of the ongoing mining rights competition. That Ercom pilots were being used to keep the peace was irritating in light of the Mogrum threat, but necessary. Ercom was the only law enforcement available this far out in the system.
"We were tracking what we thought was a group of smugglers near Eros. My commander swung above Eros and his ship disappeared."
Galleaux paused while Tren took a sip of his drink.
"Disappeared?" Tren prompted.
"Yes, sir. It just disappeared."
"Was he fired on?" Soran asked.
"Not that I could see, sir," Galleaux replied. "At least, not by any weapon I’m aware of. "
Tren frowned. Could the Mogrum have a new kind of weapon, one that struck without warning?
"Why do you suspect the Mogrum?" Soran asked. "You said you thought it was smugglers. Do you have evidence this was a Mogrum attack?"
Galleaux hesitated again. Tren, becoming impatient with the man's reluctance, slammed his mug on the table. "Damn it, man! If you have something to say, come out with it!"
The airman leaned forward over the table and dropped his voice until it was barely audible over the din. "Our unit was divided by an attack from eight Mogrum fighters. I engaged one and lined up for a kill but ..." Galleaux paused for a second, then went on in a rush. "My weapons wouldn't fire."
They waited for more. Galleaux remained silent.
"You couldn't report this malfunction to your own commander?" Tren glared at the airman.
"I'm not sure it was a malfunction, sir," Galleaux replied.
"Are you inferring sabotage? You suspect someone in your unit?" Soran ventured.
Galleaux held up a hand. "No, no, sir. My ship's armament was not malfunctioning. It simply wouldn't fire on the Mogrum ships."
Tren shook his head. "What?"
"Whenever the Mogrum jinked and I lost target lock, the guns fired normally. But when I got a lock, they wouldn't fire."
"Something wrong with the targeting computers," Soran offered.
"No," Galleaux said. "Afterward, I locked on some asteroid dust and the guns fired normally."
Tren scratched his chin. "So your ship has a glitch. Get it fixed."
Galleaux’s voice dropped again. "My whole unit had the same problem, sir. Nobody could fire on the Mogrum."
The men sat in silence for a few moments as Tren and Soran digested this.
"So why are you still alive?" Tren asked. "If you couldn't returned fire, you should be dead."
Galleaux waved his hands helplessly. "The Mogrum had the advantage. They had us outnumbered and outgunned, but they left without firing a shot."
"So, your wing commander is dead ..." Tren began.
"No, sir. He's not," Galleaux interrupted.
"But you said his ship was destroyed," Soran said.
"No, sir, it disappeared."
Soran and Tren exchanged looks again.
"Meaning it reappeared?" Tren said.
Galleaux nodded. "Commander Jonas showed up at rendezvous point on time."
Soran looked at Galleaux questioningly. "What did he say happened?"
"He denies remembering anything at all. And, to top it off, our ship's records don't have anything about the encounter. It's as if it never happened."
"What about the other men in your wing? What do they say happened?" Tren asked.
Galleaux shifted in his seat. "Well, one or two still talk about it, but the others are acting like it never happened. "
"Why would they do that?" Soran pressed.
"I don't know. They were briefed by Commander Jonas himself, then they stopped talking."
Tren grit his teeth. This did not sound good. An Ercom wing infiltrated by a Mogrum spy? If this could happen, how many other spies were there in Ercom ranks?
"When do you debrief with Jonas?" Tren wanted to know.
"Tomorrow morning, sir."
"Very well. You passed your information to us. We'll see to it that it reaches the appropriate authority. Dismissed."
Galleaux, looking relieved, stood, saluted, and moved off.
"What do you think?" Soran asked when Galleaux was out of earshot.
Tren sipped at his whiskey and considered the information. "Could all be bullshit, some elaborate joke, in which case I'll jerk a knot in that airman's tail."
"What if it's on the level?"
"That would mean the Mogrum abducted Jonas, reprogrammed him somehow, and sent him back in to infiltrate the unit. It will also mean they have a way to neutralize our targeting systems, making our fighters damn near useless." Tren lapsed into silence again and Soran took a drink.
"Have you ever engaged a Mogrum ship?"
Tren's question took Soran by surprise. "Well, no, I never had the chance," Soran admitted.
"Neither have I," Tren revealed. "I've flown combat for nearly 20 years now. I saw service in the colony wars, the old Lunar rebellion, and against raiders around Deimos. I fought the terrorists who tried to take Olympus Mons City by using an orbiting platform. I have hundreds of hours of combat flying, but not a single minute against a Mogrum." Tren looked at no one in particular, gazing blankly out into the crowd. "I've wondered about that. It seems odd.” He lifted his glass and examined the drink again. "How many Mogrum engagements do we know of?"
Soran sat back and cleared his throat. "Well, there were the reports from Neptune in orbit."
"Over five months old and no casualties reported."
"Saturn's rings two months later."
"Again, no casualties reported, and sighting was uncertain. Three ships at most."
"Ercom maintains there's a base in Uranus orbit, under the rings."
Tren looked at Soran over the whiskey glass. "That's what they say. I've been out beyond Neptune twice in the last month. If you were the Mogrum and an Ercom ship got out that far what would you do?"
Soran grinned at his commander. "They're aliens. How are we supposed to know how they will react?"
Tren crossed his arms and looked around the room. "Yeah." There was something bothering him about all this, something that hovered just at the edge of his understanding. Damn it, he was just a combat jockey. Maybe he'd seen so much fighting his paranoia was running rampant. "I need another drink," he said at last. He got up and headed for the bar.
Soran tapped his mug with a manicured finger. He looked up as a figure paused at the table.
"Well?" the visitor queried.
Soran looked toward Tren who stood with back to him, waiting on his drink. "I need some time. He's close."
The figure melted back into the crowd. Soran polished off his drink and smiled as Tren came back to the table.
"You think Ercom is lying to us about how strong the Mogrum are?" Soran asked.
Tren looked sharply at him. "Shut up and drink. I've had enough of that for the night."
Soran signaled his acceptance and changed the subject.
Tren felt most alive when he was flying. The vibration of the ship's engines was a familiar caress, the instruments old friends with comfortable faces. The cushions on his seat had become properly contoured for him through years of use. The ship's skin, darkened by carbon scoring that never actually polished away, was pitted from years of service near the Belt. The armor had worn thin on the leading edge of the port side, a result of combat in Jupiter's atmosphere. In spite of all its scars, the ship had served him well, and Tren had refused a newer model, passing the offered vehicle to Soran. Tren's ship was distinctive, easily recognizable in dock by its age and markings, something he took a certain pride in.
He slipped into the seat and ran through the preflight checklist with the ease of long familiarity. The mechanic that hung off the side of the ship in the microgravity waited for his signal before sealing the cockpit and dropping away. Tren watched the man settle into the maintenance run that encircled the wing's fighters where they attached to the docking stanchion.
The fighters poked out like ripe fruit on a great tree whose branches spread under the cover of the base dome. Ceres base was mostly underground, but the launching bays connected to the fighter block through a staging area laced with maintenance rings and refueling umbilicals. Travel to and from the dock was tricky and normally delegated to maintenance jockeys, but Tren preferred to handle any movement of his ship personally.
He tweaked the maneuvering thrusters online and bumped the Stalker away from the stanchion. His atmosuit inertial dampers hummed to life and the life support lights came on line. The ship slid back smoothly to hang about fifteen meters off the dock. Tren spun the ship on its vertical and lateral axes to test the jets. As usual, it responded beautifully. He grinned as he yanked the controller hard to the left and down, sending the ship into a yaw/pitch spin that sped up until the outside world blurred. He released the stick and the ship settled back into a neutral spin that finally stopped almost even with his primary attitude.
"You know, it almost makes me sick just watching that," Soran's voice came through the comm channel.
"Rookie," Tren dug, still grinning. He saw Soran hanging in an atmosuit about ten meters away, oversized arms crossed, his face eerily lit behind the shield.
"Going out with the patrol today, Commander?"
"Of course. What else is there to do?"
There was a short silence on line. "I think you might be interested in something else," Soran said with a smile in his voice.
"Yeah?" Tren replied, not really interested. He was running over the post-launch checklist.
He jumped as a suited figure popped up next to his cockpit and hung there. Soran waved a gloved hand.
"What the hell are you doing?" Tren shouted. "You damn near made me shit myself."
Soran swung onto the ship and pressed his faceplate against the canopy. His shout, muffled and faint, was just clear enough to be understood.
"We need to talk. I have information about the Mogrum you need to know," he said.
Tren narrowed his eyes at the man. Soran wasn't using the base intercom. That meant he didn't want anyone but Tren to hear what he had to say. But information about the Mogrum shouldn't be kept from Ercom, not unless Soran had reason to believe someone in earshot was liable to pass the information to the wrong people.
Not that Soran was above suspicion himself, in Tren's eyes. Tren liked the man, but since the academy pilots had been reassigned, Soran had sometimes acted suspiciously, as if he were watching things too closely. Tren hadn't mentioned this. He wasn't sure if it wasn't his own imagination. He'd suspected that Soran was working for Ercom intelligence and had only been left in the unit to keep an eye on it. Tren was just a veteran combat pilot, not used to espionage, but it was well known that academy pilots were trained in intelligence gathering and dispersal. In spite of everything, he had an underlying distrust of the man outside of combat situations.
Tren switched off his intercom. Well, if Soran wanted to play a game of intellectual chicken, he'd give it a shot.
He cycled the canopy open after stowing his mobile equipment. What little atmosphere there was vaporized and boiled away as the frame pulled back from the seals. Soran climbed into the tiny maintenance seat behind Tren and pressed his faceplate of the top of Tren's atmosuit. The vibration of the inertial dampers in Soran's suit gave the metal to metal contact a slight growl.
"I know you consider me a snitch for intelligence," Soran began without ceremony, "So take this or leave it as you see fit: the Mogrum are moving on Ceres base en masse. I've heard that a fleet of 50 fighters and five battle carriers are less than 72 hours from system. That means we have only two months to prepare a response."
Tren, unable to turn in his seat to face Soran, couldn't gauge the man's sincerity simply by his voice. The suits muted his tones, neutralizing his delivery and leaching any feeling from it.
"Why are you telling me this?" he demanded. "And why doesn't this come through proper channels?"
"You are one of Ercom's best veteran flyers," Soran's voice rumbled. "Your experience gives you special insight into strategy and tactics of void warfare. Your combat time in the Belt and near the gas giants is twice that of any living, active pilot. We need you."
Tren felt a prickling at the base of his neck. He resisted the urge to push himself clear of the ship to face Soran.
"Who is we?" Tren asked.
Soran did not respond immediately. Tren thought he felt a slight vibration, as if the man had shifted his weight on the ship.
"Some pilots had been assigned special duty, sort of a front guard if you will," Soran said. "They spend more time every month preparing for the Mogrum assault we know will eventually come. I have been ordered to ask you to join this group of volunteers."
"And if I refuse?"
Soran remained silent. The creeping feeling traveled down Tren's neck until it was between his shoulder blades and got worse.
"How long do I have to consider this?"
"I need an answer now," Soran told him.
Tren was certain Soran was holding a weapon on him. He quickly shifted his right knee into the attitude controller. The ship spun sharply to port. He slapped the controller hard right, then pulled back. The ship stopped its port side rotation, then the nose yanked up. Soran's suit dampers had helped him to hang on while the ship was rolling, but the sudden attitude change as the tail dropped out from under him pulled him loose from his perch. Tren tapped the nose jets and Soran found himself dizzy, nauseated, and staring into the Stalker's guns. He could almost hear the lock tone as the ship steadied on him.
Soran held his hands out to his side to indicate his surrender.
He was unarmed.
Tren stood down his weapons and parked the ship back on dock. Turning on his suit intercom, he climbed out.
"Let's talk," he said.
Soran breathed a sigh of relief.
"Alright," Tren said as they settled into their seats in the cramped space of Soran's quarters. "Let's cut through all the cloak and dagger bullshit. What's going on?"
Soran tried to offer Tren a beer, but the man refused with an impatient motion. "Ercom has built a special squadron of elite pilots, mostly top of the class academy," Soran began. "There are a few veterans. None of your experience."
"I figured they were assigned something special," Tren admitted. "New jockeys always get first dibs on the plum jobs. "
Soran caught the bitter edge to that remark. "You don't like the academy, do you?"
Tren frowned at the academy graduate. "I don't think green troops should be left on their own just because some computer says they should do well in combat. No simulation can substitute for actual experience, no matter who codes it."
Soran smiled slightly. "Even if some of the situations are based on actual combat reconstructions? Did you know that one of the advanced simulations was Olympus Mons City?"
Tren stared blankly at Soran. No, he hadn't known that. He'd avoided anything to do with the academy because of his dislike of simulations. The thought of one of his own campaigns being used as a lesson took him by surprise.
"Your value as a teacher has been recognized for years, Commander Sims," Soran told him. "We would like you to actually participate instead of appearing by proxy."
Tren considered everything that hadn't seemed right for the last few weeks. The long patrols with no enemy sightings, the continual feeling of being left behind while his family waited helplessly for an enemy assault. The growing conviction that he was losing a war he hadn't been able to even participate in. This would mean he was part of a significant program, something geared and targeted with the full weight of Ercom behind it.
It would mean he could make a difference.
"How much time did you say we have?"
"Less than two months."
"What about the Mogrum bases already in system?"
Soran poured himself a drink before answering, as if considering what he would say. Finally, he looked straight at Tren.
"There are no Mogrum in the system."
Tren blinked. Soran went on before Tren could get a word out.
"The ships we've seen are mock-ups built in a secret base off Ganymede. The reports from the outer planets were faked to simulate a Mogrum advance toward the gas giants."
Tren was confused. "Why? To what purpose? Hundreds of pilots die each year in combat training. If there is no need, what did their lives mean?" Tren felt the heat rising in him. "Who the hell is in charge of this fiasco?"
"Ercom is in charge," Soran assured him. "And they're painfully aware of the losses we've suffered over the past few months. They were unfortunate, but Ercom feels they were unavoidable."
"Unavoidable?" Tren growled.
"The cost of readiness is always high."
"Political claptrap," Tren spat. "Somebody saw an opportunity to expand their influence."
"But we have to prepare--"
"Agreed. But preparation and waste are two different things." Tren stood and began to pace. "Building mock enemy ships and putting raw troops in combat situations with bad intelligence and little effective leadership isn't preparation. It's waste."
"Ercom wasn't interested in the regular troops, Tren," Soran revealed. "It was the elite group they were concerned about. They wanted them to get as much time in evasive techniques as possible."
Tren paused in this tracks. "Evasive techniques?"
Soran nodded. "We don't expect to be able to stand and fight against the technology of a star-travelling species. Our analysis indicates the guerrilla warfare is our best defense."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Tren slowly sat, looking in disbelief at Soran.
"Ercom has no intention of resisting the Mogrum advance, do they?"
Soran twisted the glass in his hands. "No," he said.
"How far does Ercom plan to allow the Mogrum to penetrate before retaliating?"
Soran now stood and walked to the other side of the room. He sipped his drink.
"They do plan to fight?" Tren pressed.
"What the hell does that mean, 'eventually'? Does Ercom plan to let the Mogrum take Earth?"
Soran spun to face him. "No, of course not! It's just that Ercom needs more intelligence on the Mogrum before they'll commit."
Tren cocked an eyebrow. "They have mock-ups of Mogrum ships, know the size and position of the enemy fleet, and have a fair estimate of where and when they'll enter the system. What else do they need?"
Soran came back to his seat and sank into it in resignation. "They need to know they can win against the Mogrum before they'll be allowed to engage the enemy. "
"Allowed?" Tren leaned forward. "Allowed by whom?"
"The World Parliament is withholding funds and authorization pending further assurances."
Tren exploded. "Goddamned politicians! Don't they realize this is something they can't finesse into a re-election issue?" He shook with rage and frustration. "When the Mogrum get to earth, it won't make any difference anymore whether they looked good to their constituents. Nothing will matter." He closed his eyes and tried to blot out the vision of his family, his home, destroyed in a Mogrum attack. "Why did you tell me about this special group if all they can do is play a war? How can they be effective fighting force?"
"If we depended only on Ercom's backing, it couldn't," Soran shot back.
Tren's eyes popped open. He looked at Soran with renewed interest.
"Ercom is paralyzed by the WP. But not everyone requires a WP sanction to operate," Soran explained. "There is an organization willing to sponsor an anti-Mogrum effort. However, they have placed certain conditions on this funding."
"And those are?"
"We have to recruit at least 20 veterans as instructors and place them at the organization's disposal."
"Which organization are we talking about?" Tren asked.
Soran shook his head. "I'm not at liberty to say."
"You expect to recruit pilots for some unidentified organization working underground?" Tren laughed. "You've got to be kidding."
"I'm recruiting soldiers and pilots against an impending threat," Soran said, his face stern.
Tren dropped the smile. "You think I don't understand the seriousness of this threat? Son, I was fighting threats to our way of life long before you were born."
Soran softened and relaxed. "I don't mean to be insulting, commander. It's just that I get the same reaction every time. I sometimes think there are no patriots left."
Tren bristled. "I think you better define what you mean by patriot."
"Someone willing to fight to defend Earth, no matter the cost," Soran said, pouring himself another drink. "Even if it means bypassing proper channels, or bending the rules."
Tren narrowed his eyes at Soran. The tickling started the base of his neck. He sensed something wrong with the situation, but couldn't place it.
"You swore an oath to protect Earth," Soran said. He raised his glass and looked into it. "What we need to know is, how seriously did you take that promise? Are you willing to commit heart and soul to it?"
The tickling on the back of his neck was now an itch that made Tren want to turn around and look behind him. He refused to give in to the impulse and watched Soran take a sip from this class instead. Soran seem to be waiting for him to speak.
Then, suddenly, it hit him.
The faked reports, the mock ups, the malfunctioning weapons, the missing pilots, the mysterious organization working underground: there were all part of a pattern, a pattern so huge it boggled his mind.
Soran was an Academy graduate, a pilot of the new order, educated and nourished by an Ercom that was pushing vets out as quickly as they could. His loyalties were to Ercom and the academy, his animosity toward the WP apparent. The Academy pilots were also assigned to one unit, an "elite" group, under the control of an organization working, not against Ercom interests, but against the WP's. Soran, and probably his peers, were attempting to recruit vets to their side. Against the interests of the WP.
And what verification did he have of this massive Mogrum fleet rolling in the system? Only Soran's word, nothing else.
The WP would resist a massive buildup of Ercom, given the chance. However, if the WP could be convinced there was a real threat to earth, and that Ercom could stop that threat, then--- Tren looked at Soran, into the face of the enemy.
"Give me twenty-four hours," Tren said, standing to leave.
Soran stood as well, looking a little put out. "I really do need an answer immediately."
"Twenty-four hours," Tren said, and left.
He knew of six other veteran pilots who had flown with him at Olympus Mons City stationed on Ceres. He immediately went to speak to them after leaving Soran's quarters. Four of the six admitted to having joined the "elite" cadre at the insistence of an Academy graduate attached to their wing. The other two had not been approached, probably because their units had no academy pilots.
He called his own commanding officer and tried to confirm the existence of the Mogrum force just outside system and whether an "elite" task force existed to meet the threat. Flight Commander Johnson avoided directly answering the question and obliquely suggested he talk to Lieutenant Soran about it. Tren quickly changed the subject.
Tren sat in his quarters, mulling things over. He looked around the room, at the DFC he was given after Olympus Mons City, the campaign medals hanging, more than a dozen strong, on the bulkhead across from the door. He scanned the dark metal of the furniture, took in the spartan emptiness around him.
As he often did when he was troubled, he picked up a data crystal and inserted into a player. Images of his family flashed across the screen: his wife and children at Yellowstone, the kids mugging in front of their house, the youngest with his iguana. But there was something different about the pictures this time.
He was startled at the lines in his wife's face. The children seemed older than remembered. He tried to recall the last time he spent more than a week with them.
The pictures went on, but he was only partly aware of them now. He was remembering the face of his wife the last time he'd said goodbye before starting the tour at Ceres. How could he have missed the resignation, the tired look of despair? Each tour they had gone through the same ceremony, each time her face had been emptier. How could he have missed that?
How old were the children? What kind of students, what kind of people were they?
When had Ercom become more important to him that his own family?
Ercom and the WP would be at to each others' throats for years. If the Mogrum threat was exposed as a fraud, there would be dire repercussions. Tren shook his head and ground his teeth. Politics was for politicians. The conflict between Ercom and the WP was beyond his ability to change, or even effect. He was sure that Ercom was preparing to move against the WP, a coup to cement Ercom's power.
His only options, as he saw it, were a choice between breaking his oath of duty to the World Parliament to join this "elite" underground or resign his commission, which would most likely mean his death. He knew he couldn't go back on his oath of loyalty, nor could he join with those who had. All he had was his skill as a pilot, his integrity, and his family. Those were what made Tren Sims who he was. If he betrayed even one of them, he would lose himself, his soul. He would rather die.
But what about his family? If he refused to join Ercom's rebellion, what would happen to them? He knew that, if they tried to escape Ercom, it would be a matter of time before they were all captured and probably killed. On the other hand, if he resigned his commission, they would be watched closely, but they might have a chance at a reasonably normal life as long as he kept a low profile.
Was he contemplating cowardice? By seriously considering resignation, was he turning his back on his duty to Ercom, to those other pilots who would be part of the coming action? They were his men, men he had fought alongside for so long, who he'd bled and drank with. Didn't he have a duty to them?
The last picture had come up in the series on the data crystal. It was a picture of himself and his wife taken shortly after their marriage, one of his favorites. He had looked at this picture each time before going into combat to remind himself of what he fought for.
Tren made his way to command and control. Flight Commander Johnson looked up from his consoles.
"Tren! Good to see you. Did Soran talk to you?"
"Yes, sir," Tren said, standing at ease before Johnson's desk.
"Well? What do you say? You like the idea?"
"Frankly, sir," Tren began, looking his CO right in the eye, "no, I don't. "
Johnson's look of expectancy went to puzzlement, then anger.
"I have no intention of releasing any information given to me to anyone else," Tren assured him. "However, I would like to resign my commission." Tren sighed. He'd gotten through it better than he'd hoped he would. "I'm ready to go home."
Johnson's face was a study in conflicting emotions. "What about the Mogrum?"
Tren looked hard at the man. "I don't believe there is a Mogrum threat, sir. I believe Ercom has manufactured it for their own ends."
Johnson leaned back his chair. "I see. And who do you plan to tell that to?"
Tren shrugged. "No one, sir. It's none of my business what politics are being played. I'm a soldier. All I ever was, was a soldier. With no real conflict, I'm nothing. I want to spend whatever time I have left with my family."
The unspoken phrase "whatever time you let me have" hung between the men like a sword. Tren knew he was now on borrowed time, that Ercom could not afford to let him run loose knowing what we did. But, he was a combat pilot, so he could accept that. He knew there was nothing to do about it. He'd sworn an oath to the WP, and he did not intend to break it.
"We could bring your family out here," Johnson said in a neutral tone. "You think your wife and kids would like Ceres?"
Tren flushed at the threat, but kept his temper. "I have over twenty years service, sir. I'm due to retire anyway."
"You don't have to."
"I understand that, sir. I want to."
"You understand what you're asking for, Sims."
"Yes, sir. Time with my family."
There was a long pause. Tren kept his jaws locked tightly together. He looked at Johnson, who returned an appraising stare. Tren hoped he saw in Johnson's eyes what he wanted to see: comprehension. Johnson had been his commander for nearly fifteen years. Tren and he had fought together in the colony wars, had womanized together before they got married. As young officers, they had been very close. Tren had passed on the promotion that put Johnson where he was, at that desk.
Finally, the flight commander spoke.
"You've been exemplary pilot, Commander Sims. You've fought well and long for Ercom. We will miss you."
Johnson stood and extended his hand.
David Blalock has been writing science fiction and fantasy for about twenty-five years now. In print since 1990 in various publications, his latest hard copy story is in the anthology "More Monsters from Memphis" (available from Amazon.com). He lives near Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife, daughter, and computer.
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